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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 June 2006, 03:42 GMT 04:42 UK
French fight for illegal children
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Mariama Kagny, 5 attends a protest with parents and students, 16 June 2006 in front of a pre-school in Paris
French-born children could be deported to unfamiliar countries
A grassroots network of teachers and French families has begun to hide and protect illegal immigrants and their children facing deportation.

It comes as the government cracks down on France's illegal immigration.

The centre-right government had given such children an amnesty to remain in France until the end of the school year - which is coming soon.

There are 400,000 illegal immigrants in France, of whom 50,000 are thought to be children currently at school.

Distant dream

One such family fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo five years ago, but are now facing expulsion.

We can't just slam the door shut and pretend they don't exist
French teacher

Aldini and his brother Alexis are drawing what they would like best - a home of their own.

But for now, it's a distant dream.

For the past two years, the seven- and nine-year-old boys have been forced to move time and time again - after France turned down their mother's request for asylum.

French police even went to their school to try to deport them. It was only chance they were not there.

This house is their latest safe haven. It belongs to their former primary school teacher - who is risking a prison sentence for hiding the boys at her home. She says France has a duty to help people in need.

"During the Second World War, people risked their lives to help and hide others - they were far braver than we are now," the teacher says.

"But even though we face a prison sentence or a fine for doing this, we sometimes have to disobey the law and stand up against what our government is doing to these people. We can't just slam the door shut and pretend they don't exist."

'They've been wonderful'

The boys' mother Juliette says her sons are too young to remember fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that France is the only home they have ever known.

Nor do they remember their father, a political prisoner in Kinshasa who was only allowed out of jail to die.

Juliette says that without help from the boys' teachers, the family would be unable to survive.

"They've been wonderful," she tells me, fighting back tears. "They've supported us financially, morally, physically - in every way.

Protesters demonstrate in front of Senate 6 June 2006 in Paris
Protesters have held demonstrations in Paris this month

"But I am scared. It's very very hard to live like this - always hidden. We couldn't go back to Congo - our life is here now and it has been for the past five years. My husband is dead - there is nothing to go back to."

Juliette and her children are not alone.

In homes across France, an unofficial network has sprung up of French people so horrified by the prospect of deporting children that they are prepared to hide the youngsters in their homes, away from their parents, so the police cannot deport them.

Under French law, it would be illegal to deport children without their parents and vice-versa.

The left-wing group Education sans Frontieres, or Education without Borders, has promised to continue the fight, arranging for more families to take care of other children in danger of deportation as the school term - and an amnesty for the youngsters - nears its end.

Living in fear

The issue of illegal immigration, and how best to deal with it, has become a key political battleground between right and left in France ahead of elections next year.

The opposition Socialists accuse the government of tightening immigration law in an attempt to appeal to voters on the far-right, even though French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has said the authorities will look again at offering clemency in some 800 cases, in which the children of illegal immigrants have no links to any other homeland.

But Education sans Frontieres says that will not necessarily help boys such as Aldini and Alexis, and will leave many tens of thousands of others living in fear of deportation to countries they barely know.

It seems that the more the centre-right French government attempts to crack down, the greater the resistance from the left, with more and more French teachers pledging to uphold the values of liberty, equality and fraternity they say France must still stand for today.


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